Friday, October 3

Early Trends

At the moment I am writing an essay for an elective at university which tracks the development of early Christianity in Rome from 50-150AD using Paul's letter to the Romans and an ancient document known as the Shepherd of Hermas. While researching for the essay it really struck me how a Christian community, which was unique in its egalitarian worship structure, could rapidly develop into the most authoritarian and hierarchical church in the ancient world. Eventually, the city hosted the strict line of holy authority found in Roman Catholicism. How did this change take place?

Not many hints can be found in the letter to the Romans. Paul’s attempts to unify the church on matters of ethnicity and the law did not require the entire community to adopt a single point of view, but merely to tolerate and mutually respect one another. Hermas’ attempts to unify the church, however, was another matter entirely. I sympathise greatly with his plight, as he considered an affinity to business and a lust for material prosperity as the main factors that were contaminating and destroying the church, but the manner in which he attempted to solve the problem set a dangerous precedent. Throughout his letter the issues of post baptismal sin and wealth was argued in a way that excluded all who disagreed, not only from the churches but from God. I understand that existential integrity was very important to the church, and may have been necessary for its survival, but in time this same line of reasoning was extended into matters of doctrine and intellectual belief. His answer to the churches problems was to give the church an authority that was beyond question, beyond reproach.

Dangerous trends such as this one can be seen throughout the epistles of the New Testament and later Christian documents. Another example is submission to the secular state. It was a common accusation of Christianity in those days that it was politically subversive and hostile to the authority of Caesar. Amazingly, two major stalwarts of early Christianity, Peter and Paul, were vociferous in their attempts to nullify the accusation. Paul’s command to submit to Governments in Romans 13 is situational and conditional, leading way to the churches later rejection of Caesar and his demands. Nevertheless, the foundation had been laid for a future peace to develop between Christians and the state, where social justice and political activism was sidelined. Even more disturbing is 1 Peter’s characterisation of Governors as the rewarders of righteous and punishers of evildoers. I do not mean to impose my own dispositions onto a letter written nearly two thousand years ago, but I think everyone can agree that there appears to be a major shift between Jesus rebellion against the religious institutions of the day and the early Christian’s call for submission to all authority.

Another example is the very structure of the house church, which seem to be the majority model that the early church adopted (the notable exception is Rome). The coming together of masters, slaves, the destitute, and prosperous businessmen was always going to lead to awkward social situations. I appreciate that Paul tried his best to encourage equality in the house churches over matters of spiritual gifts, the common meal, and almsgiving. However, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that there is an innate compromise in the model that led to an ignorance of certain sayings of Jesus and class antagonism. Robert Jewett, who is a wonderful scholar, called the house church “love-patriarchalism.”

On the other hand, you find figures in early Christianity that appears to be on the exact same wavelength with the message of Jesus. It was James who remarked that pure religion was taking care of orphans and widows in their distress (read: the people in society who could not look after themselves), and keeping yourself unstained by the world. In his epistle he also expounded on the teachings of Jesus that related to wealth, and took the existential essence of Christianity very seriously.

Too often in scholarship of Early Christianity the question of “Why did these things happen?” is prioritised and the question “Should these things have happened?” is ignored entirely. It is these themes that I will run with in the second part to the Quiet Revolution. Unlike in this post, I will actually argue for my position rather than just state it. Unfortunately, with university and part time work it should not be expected soon.

12 Comments:

Blogger edward said...

Tim...as you continue to study the early church...doesnt it make you long a little bit for those early days where Christians were "real people" from all walks of life sharing a simple, common faith and desire for the person of Jesus? Our modern scientific approach to Christianity through theology and dogma seems to have totally dilluted most of Jesus' message and example. Truly the word "Christian" has lost much of its meaning today.

As for "home churches"...I would favor a return to that. I grew up in a version of that concept. A small family centered church where half of our meetings were in someone's home...sitting in a circle...singing, praying and discussing the Bible together. And yes, always breaking bread together around grandma's gifted cooking. Those are my favorite "church" memories. No concern about the building fund, the flower fund, the choral and music program. Just sitting together eyeball to eyeball letting our humanity all hang out.

Where is that church today?

10:34 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

I agree. Institutionalising such an intimate and personal religion was never a good idea, in my opinion. Hierarchy and authority too often leads to corruption, jealousy, and politics. When you consider the purpose of churches, and the message of Jesus himself, centres of power have no place in a Christian community.

Nevertheless, I have never truly experienced anything remotely close to the house or tenement churches that occured with the early Christians. It sure sounds appealing at times though! Criticising house churches for sowing the seeds to what we have today will possibly mislead people into thinking I consider them no better than what we have today. I'll have to incorporate that into the post about it!

Thanks ed.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous RY said...

Tim-
I'm interested to find out if you have visited any house churches or what are called "organic" or "simple" churches in your area? There are some websites with directories.

I have been to some that seemed like cults, and others that seemed no better than institutional setting or miserably boring Bible studies.

It seems to me that it is not that hard a thing to get going. All you need are 2 or 3 people who are committed to the person of Jesus and his teachings, living in proximity to one another, and it would happen.

At least thats my theory.

All they have to do is committ to stick it out, like a "covenant".

There are things that happen with 2 or 3 that simply cannot happen with a solitary individual. And there's simply no reason why this generation has to be vacant of the true community of Jesus.

7:08 AM  
Blogger the_burning_bush said...

I liked this one. I definitely agree that Jesus wasn't leading an attack on all authorities when he opposed the teachings of the religious leaders. Jesus was not anti-authoritarian, He followed His authority (his father) so closely that all other authorities became secondary.

It's probably too late for your paper, but Calvin spends a lot of time in Book IV of his Institutes trying to figure out where the papacy concept comes from, and he is unable to find the answer. Also, 1 Clement presents some questions along the lines of the ones you are asking.

My take on the hierarchy of the church is that all structures which are built on the foundation of Christ will stand. If any structure makes itself out to be the foundation, however, it is destined to fall.

5:32 AM  
Blogger the_burning_bush said...

I liked this one. I definitely agree that Jesus wasn't leading an attack on all authorities when he opposed the teachings of the religious leaders. Jesus was not anti-authoritarian, He followed His authority (his father) so closely that all other authorities became secondary.

It's probably too late for your paper, but Calvin spends a lot of time in Book IV of his Institutes trying to figure out where the papacy concept comes from, and he is unable to find the answer. Also, 1 Clement presents some questions along the lines of the ones you are asking.

My take on the hierarchy of the church is that all structures which are built on the foundation of Christ will stand. If any structure makes itself out to be the foundation, however, it is destined to fall.

5:32 AM  
Blogger the_burning_bush said...

I liked this one. I definitely agree that Jesus wasn't leading an attack on all authorities when he opposed the teachings of the religious leaders. Jesus was not anti-authoritarian, He followed His authority (his father) so closely that all other authorities became secondary.

It's probably too late for your paper, but Calvin spends a lot of time in Book IV of his Institutes trying to figure out where the papacy concept comes from, and he is unable to find the answer. Also, 1 Clement presents some questions along the lines of the ones you are asking.

My take on the hierarchy of the church is that all structures which are built on the foundation of Christ will stand. If any structure makes itself out to be the foundation, however, it is destined to fall.

5:32 AM  
Blogger the_burning_bush said...

Oops, sorry, Tim. Feel free to delete those duplicates. I pushed the button too many times.

Did you say something about getting out of school for a bit in November? I hope your job allows you some rest during that time.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

Ry: No I haven't been to an organic church, although one day I'd like to try it out. The one thing that i'm looking for at the moment is other people who I feel are on the same wavelength as I. My whole life i've been in churches that I share significant disagreements with.


Burning Bush: Nothing is too late for my paper! To be honest I haven't even started writing anything, although I have about 4-5 pages of notes so far. Calvin is quite late in history to use as a primary resource, but i'll definentely check him out for a theological commentary. 1 Clement is also on my list to further research, as are the letters of ignatius, the shepherd of hermas, the letters of polycarp, the didache, and of course paul's letters. I'm very excited about getting down and writing it.

Exams finish very early december, and it is likely in december when all the notes will get put into words and it'll be posted here. My work kindof has a lull in december and picks up steam january/february, so there is my opening. As for the duplicate posts, i'm not sure I know how to delete them, so I might just leave them haha.

8:48 AM  
Blogger the_burning_bush said...

lol ... fair enough, Tim.

Those are some great works there. I didn't like the Shepherd very much at all. Diognitus and Polycarp were some good works. I liked Barnabus too.

11:57 AM  
Blogger edward said...

Just reread this Tim. Another thought came to mind. As to submitting to authority issues in the early church, I think most of the original deciples and followers of Jesus all assumed Jesus second coming in their lifetime, establishing the new kingdom and they would not see death. For that reason, resisting authority held little purpose if the new world Jesus promised was so eminent. Just a thought.

Also, on the issue of home churches, it is probably important to find one to visit that is not lead by some heavy leader. Some corporate group (not corporation:)) that shares responsibilities to each other and have some healthy form of "group process and development" in an open and sharing/caring environment could be the find of the century. Another "Davidian" cult would probably be less productive to observe.

Hope your schedule lightens up soon and your life has balance.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Timothy said...

Hi ed,

Thanks for the comment. You bring up a good point, the expectation for imminent radical change nullified the need for political revolution or resistance. The same point has been used to explain why the churches were so egalitarian in the beginning (who needs a formal hierarchy when Jesus is coming very soon), but I find our interpretation more agreeable.

In regards to house churches, it might just be me but i'm starting to think it would be way too awkward considering my age and the fact that they would be total strangers. The possibility of witnessing cult-like rituals isn't too appealing either. By the way Ed, study at the moment has prohibited me from replying to your latest email or commenting on your latest blog post, but i'll get around to it asap!

6:33 PM  
Blogger edward said...

Pertaining to your age and awkwardness...that is just the point of the "home church" setting. In my mind and experience, the best practice would be family based groups including all ages. This would then represent the whole "body of Christ" communing together. In my opinion, it IS that intimacy of small groups that are needed to form true "fellowship". Much of the world is threatened to "know and be known". "Church" has become a place to "see and be seen" but with little true sharing or caring between members accept for on a very formal basis. That is what many of us have rejected in modern day Cristiandom...

4:39 AM  

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